Wednesday, 28 June 2017

The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893

With a decade to go before the dawn of the 20th century and 400 years after Columbus set foot on American shores, the United States was at a crossroads. By 1890, the period of Westward expansion was over: the 1890 US census announced that the last lands of the frontier had been settled. Any farmers looking for new property were forced to head north into Canada, where homesteads were still available until 1914. For the majority of people, cities provided the only means for a living. American society began the shift from agrarianism to urbanization, with all the associated ills. Advances in mass transportation allowed the better off to retreat to the suburbs on the cusp of city borders, leaving the inner cities in squalor... A process reaching its apotheosis after the Second World War. At the same time, an economic depression struck in 1893 when railway companies shuttered due to over-servicing of the market, taking investment banks down with them and rippling throughout the economy. Nevertheless, immigrants continued to arrive in droves, to the tune of 13 million over the course of the decade.

In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner presented his landmark "Frontier Thesis," outlining the theory that the American collective psyche was shaped and identified with the concept of the Western frontier. Turner argued that the process of expansion into new territories with their own natural and societal challenges required nascent Americans to abandon non-functional European institutions, including its aristocracies, churches, forms of government and hereditary entitlements. The movement West encouraged an ethos of individualism, self-reliance, and republican democracy, with consequent mistrust of the systemic authority of government and science, as well as an antipathy towards art and a commitment to the use of violence to resolve conflict. Americans found greater utility in ad hoc measures suited to the immediate environment, from vigilance committees to new religious movements. Until the admission of Utah as a State in 1896, the US government had been waging a protracted political struggle with the Mormon church, which had effectively established theocratic rule in the territory. It's been said that the United States has never seen a heresy it didn't like, and the frontier environment was ripe for the formation of groups like the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Science, Southern Baptists and Pentecostals.

The closing of the frontier marked a major collective psychological crisis in America. One response was to retreat into a newly fashioned mythology about the settlement period: the invention of the "Wild West." Buffalo Bill Cody debuted his first "Wild West" show in 1883, the first cinematic Western - The Great Train Robbery - premiered in 1902, and in 1897, Charlie Russell moved off the ranch and into the artist's studio to chronicle the passing era. Another response was to engage in overseas expansion. 1893 also marked the year that American dissidents overthrew the Kingdom of Hawaii and began the process to usher it into US governance in 1898. The end of the Spanish-American War in 1898 brought two new spheres of influence under the eagle's wing: the Caribbean (Cuba, Puerto Rico) and the Philippines (Guam, Philippine Islands). The latter lead to a war between American troops and Filipino freedom fighters that ended with the Philippines becoming an unincorporated American territory in 1902.

With a full-up nation and overseas aspirations, the United States came of age. No longer a frontier to be settled, many turned their attention to the question of what America was going to become and its readiness to ascend to the same echelon as the great European powers. That the 400th anniversary of Columbus' landing should coincide with America's social and psychological upheaval was providential for the organizers of the 1893 World's Exposition in Chicago. The committee was eager to apply the medium of the world's fair to the assertion of America's emergence into national maturity (or adolescence), creating a gleaming white beacon of American optimism and exceptionalism on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Thomas Moran, Chicago World's Fair.

The dominant feature of the Columbian Exposition, which ran from May 1 to October 30 of 1893, was the architecture. Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted opted to construct the exposition's 14 major buildings in a stucco version of Beaux Arts style, a form of the Neo-Classicism that serves as America's national monumental architecture. Officially named the Court of Honor, this area surrounding a central lagoon came to be known as the "White City" and communicated two essential ideals about the United States. Firstly, its Beaux Arts Neo-Classicism sent the message that the United States was a serious nation, equal to Europe and its grand monumental architecture. Secondly, the White City developed the political messages of Neo-Classicism as America's civic architecture.

Since being invented by the Greeks, Classicism has been one of the most popular and comprehensible of architectural styles. It is a particular favourite of nations aspiring to national ascendancy, not the least being the Nazis and Fascists. Neither was the United States immune. Having taken direct political influences from Greece and Rome, the USA consciously adopted Neo-Classicism as a means to articulate the sense of being the great inheritor of Greco-Roman democratic, republican ideals. Everything was aped, from the columns down to the use of the eagle as a national symbol. A layperson visiting the National Mall in Washington DC might only be able to distinguish between modern America and ancient Rome by the lack of togas. By contrast, Canada's main national architectural style is Gothic Revivalism, consciously associating this constitutional monarchy not with the political idealism of Greece and Rome but the ethnic heredity of England and France.

The Great Basin, looking towards the Administrative Building.
In the foreground is the statue of The Republic.
Closer view of the Administration Building.
The reverse view, from the balcony of the Administration Building,
looking towards The Republic, the Peristyle, and Lake Michigan.
Looking upon the obelisk and The Republic from
in front of the Machinery Building.
Closer view of the Peristyle separating the Grand Basin from Lake Michigan.
The White City.
The Agriculture Building.
The Machinery Building.
A closer look at the Machinery Building. 
Replicas of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria.
The Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building,
with the courtyard fountain in the foreground.
Entrances of the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building,
with the Electricity Building in the background.
Interior of the Electricity Building.
Inside the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building.
A view of the North Lagoon featuring the Illinois State Building
in the background and the facade of the Horticulture Building.
The Horticulture Building.

The Mines and Mining Building.
The US Government Building.
The White City literally became a beacon: at night, the whole Court of Honor would light up with millions of bulbs powered by Westinghouse. Though Thomas Edison tendered a bid with his Direct Current, Westinghouse eventually won with Alternating Current, a key victory in the battle between the two systems. Despite all pretensions, the Exposition only really succeeded in demonstrating American superiority in one area: technology, with its associated consumerism and corporatism. Of the 14 main buildings of the White City, the majority and best received featured technological and industrial themes, such as Transportation, Agriculture, Electricity, Machinery, Mines and Mining, and the curiously combined "Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building." The United States could not claim to make any great contribution to culture, the arts or philosophy, but it could claim to contribute technological achievement. Not only that, but 1893 Columbian Exposition, with its message of American Exceptionalism and introduction of the United States as a global power, would help cement the modern zeitgeist that the intertwined nexus of scientific, technological, industrial and consumer achievement is culture. Since America could not make any significant contribution to the fine arts, literature and language, philosophy and religion, etc., those things simply did not count.

The Fine Arts Building.
The hall of the Fine Arts Building.
Inside the Fine Arts Building, a statue of Washington.
The goddess of agriculture and The Republic behind.
A closer view of The Republic.

Three intriguing sculptures rendering American history in Greco-Roman form:
the Native American brave, the Euro-American cowboy, and the African-American slave.

The Administration Building at night.
The White City at night, powered by electricity.
This effect was not universally lauded, however. Louis Sullivan designed the Transportation Building in a colourful pre-Modernist style that deviated considerably from the Neo-Classicism of the White City. Later on he would say that the popularity of the White City and its promotion of Neo-Classicism and the City Beautiful Movement would set American architecture back half a century. Though the White City proved spectacular and inspirational, visitors to the Exposition tended to prefer the other two main attractions: the collection of State buildings designed in regional vernacular styles and the Midway Plasiance, the carnival with its exotic and sensual diversions. The Idaho Building, for example, was a significant influence on the development of the American Craftsman style, a progressive, Romantic style utilizing regional materials and sensibilities in response to the growing American middle class and the Transcendentalist spiritualizing of the American landscape.

Two views of the exterior of the unique Transportation Building.
The Idaho state building, in a popular local vernacular
that influenced the "rustic" architectural style.
The California state building, influential on Mission Revival architecture.
Nevertheless, the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition reacted against the problems facing America in the closing decade of the 19th century, charting a course that would come to define the United States in the opening decades of the 20th century. It can even be argued that what was laid out in the White City is still influencing American - and by extension global - cultural politics to this day. Arguably, the Midway Plaisance was no less influential on American popular culture.

Whereas the gleaming White City was intended to be the morally and intellectually uplifting part of the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition held in Chicago, by far the more popular attraction was the Midway Plaisance. This mile-long spur off the main exposition site was the repository for fakirs, novelty acts, scientific and technological oddities, rides, food, and sideshows. By the time the Exposition was finished, it alone had pulled in 2.25 million visitors and over four million dollars (approximately 100 million in today's money). From that point on, "midway" came to be used as the generic term for the part of a fair containing the rides and sideshows.

The Midway Plaisance.

Perhaps the biggest attraction on the Midway Plaisance was the original Ferris Wheel. Built by George Ferris under the ostensible influence of the Eiffel Tower (built for the 1889 World Exposition), the Ferris Wheel was 264 feet high with 36 cars that could hold 60 people each, for a total capacity of 2,160 people on the ride at any one time. The price for a 20 minute, two revolution ride was 50 cents. Of the 2.25 million people who visited the Midway Plaisance, 1.5 million rode the Ferris Wheel. After the fair, the Ferris Wheel was moved to Lincoln Park, Chicago, and then to St. Louis, Missouri for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. It was finally demolished in 1906.

The original Ferris Wheel.

Another competition with the Eiffel Tower was the Captive Balloon. This aerostat could take 15 passengers to a height of 1500 feet, which the organizers made sure to promote as 500 feet higher than the famed tower in France. This attraction did not last the whole exposition, however. A gale blew through the Windy City, tearing the balloon from its moorings and collapsing it on the Midway. It was afterwards replaced by an acrobatic act. Failing to partake in that attraction, there was also an "ice railway": a type of toboggan-coaster where the channels were slicked with artificially created ice.

Captive Balloon, and the Ferris Wheel, over the Midway Plaisance.

Diagram of the Ice Railway.

Lining the main thoroughfare of the Midway were pavilions and theatres dedicated to different nations and subjects. One of the more infamous was the Egyptian Theater, home to the attraction "A Street in Cairo." On this affected alleyway of the mysterious orient, Syrian dancer Farida Mazar Spyropoulos introduced America to the "hoochie-coochie" dance. As a whole, the Midway was under the management of a young music promoter (and later US Congressman) Sol Bloom. When no music was immediately available that he felt captured the essence of the Street in Cairo performance, he hammered out a quick piece for piano. Entitled The Streets of Cairo, or The Poor Little Country Maid, it is a public domain classic known best for its associations with hoochie-coochie dancers and snake charmers.

While hoochie-coochie dancers and camel rides kept one end of a Street in Cairo busy, the other end saw a monumental reconstruction of a Temple of Luxor. Within this temple was a set of wax casts of the mummies of Rameses II, Thothmes III., Sesostris, and Seti I. Reenactments of  ancient Egyptian processions were conducted hourly by drummers and leopard-skin clad would-be "priests of Isis." If not religious observances, then there would reenactments of wedding processionals by camelback. Of the camel rides, a guidebook observed "ladies with their male admirers would seat themselves, and when the camel got up, there was joy in Cairo. It was the most hilarious place on the Midway."

The Temple of Luxor.

A Street in Cairo.

Hoochie-coochie dancers.

Camel rides through the Street in Cairo.

Exhibits like A Street in Cairo might be considered "hokum" in many respects, but some effort was made for legitimacy in the wayward exercise of "anthropological zoos." These buildings along the "Street of Nations" were built in the style of their homelands and populated by people from those countries in an odd mix of interpretive centre and freak show. Among the exhibits were "villages" from the Sami people ("Laplanders"), Austria, Germany, West Africa, Java, India, the Aztecs, and traditional Native American culture. There was a Chinese theatre, a Hungarian concert garden, an ostrich farm, a cyclorama of Kilauea Volcano, models of the Eiffel Tower and St. Peter's Basilica, and a replica of the Hōō-den (Phoenix Hall) temple from Japan. The latter was a gift of the Emperor of Japan, who offered $650,000 and an army of Japanese artisans to construct it.

Hōō-den replica on the Midway Plaisance.

Interior of the India exhibit.

German Village.

Interior of the Chinese Bazaar.

The Chinese Theatre.

According to the official guidebook of the fair:
Adjacent on the east to the Austrian village is the Chinatown of the Fair, containing under one roof of a bazaar, restaurant, theatre, museum, joss-house, and elsewhere, a tea house and garden. The building is of typical Chinese architecture, 150 by 100 feet, 80 in height, with bell-shaped towers and minarets painted in prismatic colors, beginning with the violet hue of the rainbow. In the bazaar are silks and embroideries, toilet appliances and table ware, with other articles such as are offered for sale in Chinese stores of the better class. In the restaurants meals are served and cooked in mysterious fashion. Here one may partake of the regular fare of the Chinaman; a dish of rice and vegetables, with perhaps a few small pieces of meat or fish; or he may order an elaborate dinner, with courses innumerable and savory, tempting viands, so they be not too closely scrutinized.
Unfortunately, embezzlement and financial mismanagement caused the Chinese pavilion to change ownership several times during the course of the Fair.

Hagenbeck's Trained Animals show enhanced the circus-like atmosphere of the Midway Plaisance. The structure was built around a 4,500 seat auditorium in which Carl Hagenbeck would parade his trained assortment of 20 lions, two tigers, a polar bear and two black bears, pigs, dogs and horses. One of the most stunning parts of the performance involved having a lion ride horseback. Attached to the auditorium was Hagenbeck's ethnological exhibition featuring his collections of artifacts, skins, and trophies from Caledonia, British Columbia, Africa, and the South Pacific. Hagenbeck's fame was originally established as a supplier for zoos and circuses, but he also took on the cause of the humane treatment of animals. The torturous methods that were used to train animals throughout the 19th century were (rightly) distasteful to him, and the Hagenbeck show emphasized that these were intelligent animals trained through friendship and positive reinforcement (he did, however, also organize "human zoos" where Samoans, Inuit, Nubians and Sami people were put on display in their "natural state"). After selling off his show to Benjamin Wallace in 1906, Hagenbeck opened up his own zoo near Hamburg. The Tierpark Hagenbeck was innovative for displaying animals in open conditions guarded by moats rather than behind bars, and for providing them with more naturalized environments, which paved the way for zoos through the 20th century. His exhibit at the Midway Plaisance also included an aquarium of fish from the Indian Ocean.

These exhibits were a mix of educational value and sideshow hokum, but some was more educational than others. The Midway also hosted the photographic pioneer Eadweard Muybridge in his own, custom-built Zoopraxinographical Hall, where he lectured on animal locomotion and aired moving pictures of his experiments. It was the first commercial movie theatre in the United States, and admittedly was probably more famous for the moving pictures than Muybridge's lectures.

A sample of Muybridge's work.
Ostensibly bridging the gap between education and entertainment was the most popular exhibit of the Midway Plaisance, which was not properly a part of it at all. That was Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West show. The show original debuted in 1883 as the first and archetypal Wild West Show, a theatrical celebration of the diminishing Western way of life that created and cemented the modern image of the American frontier. Cody had wanted to bring his show to what was going to be the greatest show in the United States. Organizers were less enchanted with the notion of permitting what they saw as essentially a circus. Consequently, Cody leased a parcel of land immediately outside the Exposition's gates and set up private shop. Whereas the Midway Plaisance pulled in 2.25 million visitors, Buffalo Bill's shows on their own drew away 2 million for its daily shows at 3:00 and 8:00pm, rain or shine.

Map of Buffalo Bill's site in relation to the Columbian Exposition grounds.

Unique to the performance in 1893 was the introduction of the "Congress of Rough Riders of the World": an assemblage of horsemen pulled from American cowboys, Native American braves, Argentine gauchos, Mexican vaqueros, Cossacks, Arabs, and mounted units from the militaries of the Western world. The Congress mirrored, in name and constitution, the international flavor of the Exposition. For example, the Columbian Exposition also hosted the Congress of Women and a Parliament of the World's Religions as conferences. Cody's exhibition of equine skill from the world over fit right into the same atmosphere.

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